Dead In The Water

Has Florida’s Snook Population Rebounded From Last Winter's Freeze?

FSF Staff September 21, 2010

Unless you spent the winter season in hibernation, you’re well aware of the unprecedented stretch of cold weather that left the future of one of Florida’s greatest game fish hanging in the balance. The scene resembled a combat zone and it all started with verbiage uncommon to native Floridians—Wind Chill, Frost & Freeze Advisories, and Severe Winter Weather Warnings. It was the middle of January and most of the country was locked into a deep freeze. Record breaking temperatures extended all the way to the southernmost city, resulting in widespread fish kills throughout the entire state.

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Photo: FWC

Unfortunately snook were hit the hardest, although many other highly prized game fish perished. As a result of the widespread kill, the FWC enacted an executive order to prohibit the harvest of snook until after their summer spawn. To get the inside scoop on how snook have bounced back we’ve contacted some of the most reliable inshore guides around the state.

So all of this excitement whether 2,000, 20,000 or 200,000 snook died doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. You have to look at the long-term trend line.

No snook article would be complete without insight from Ron “Snook” Taylor, the state’s leading snook biologist, of the Florida Wildlife Research Institute. While the outlook was grim, his insight was very informative and uplifting. “It is an undeniable fact that the prolonged cold snap was an indiscriminate killer. Juvenile or mature, it didn’t matter. It made me sick to see 500 dead snook over 40-inches when touring Everglades National Park, but I have confidence that nature is hard at work. We must first look at the biology of a snook, and from my fieldwork it’s hard to discern a difference from what we saw on the spawning sites last year to what we saw this year. This is because snook come from several sites to spawn year after year. You’re always going to have a robust population of snook at that particular spawning site. Now the question is…Is the population distributed at the same level of abundance as it was last year?”

“When it comes to reproduction, you must understand that the more fish you have in a population, the less robust the recruitment while the greater the mortality rate. There’s no relationship between the standing stock of spawning fish and the recruitment in the fishery in the young of the year and the next following year. With stronger individuals you’re going to have better survival and faster growth rates. Some of the preliminary indexes do point to a negative trend, but when all of the data is in and we construct an index of abundance, I suspect we will not see a difference in years past. Even though in the end it may be true that the index is less than in 2009, if it is not significant, it doesn’t make a difference because the variation of this coming year may be less than the variation between 2006 and 2007. So all of this excitement whether 2,000, 20,000 or 200,000 snook died doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. You have to look at the long-term trend line. If we have a dip in the virtual numbers in this year’s population but it doesn’t effect the direction of the trend line, we are still in good shape.”

Homosassa
Captain Glen Touchton • www.southernfishingguide.net
Situated near the traditional cut-off line for snook, Captain Glen tells us that even after this year’s devastating winter, he’s seen more snook than ever before. “Every year we see more and more snook and this year is no different. We’ve been seeing big fish over 30-inches, but not too many juveniles. Snook aren’t heavily targeted this far north, but everyone’s catching ‘em while fishing for reds and trout. Part of the reason for this is probably due to the Crystal River, which offers spring-fed 72° water year-round. A live pinfish has been the trick, and I’m thrilled we’re seeing an emergence of a growing snook population.”

Tampa Bay
Captain Wade Osborne • www.afishionado.com
With over 26-years experience fishing the waters surrounding Tampa Bay, Captain Osborne is a veritable wealth of knowledge. He tells us that while summer tarpon trips have taken the majority of his efforts, most of the snook he’s encountered have been over 28-inches. “I’ve seen very few fish under 24-inches and the ones we have seen definitely haven’t been as cooperative as they were in years past. Many of the snook we lost were true lunkers. It was sad to see so many dead snook between 30 and 40-inches.” During the freeze, the Tampa Bay area recorded water temperatures in the 40s—much too cold for a snook’s liking. Even more tolerant redfish and trout perished in Tampa Bay.

Boca Grande/Charlotte Harbor
Captain Andy Boyette • www.gofishcharters.com
While it was reported that the shallows of Charlotte Harbor were some of the hardest hit, Captain Andy Boyette reports that there’s still a pretty large population of healthy snook. “Hopefully the long-term damage isn’t substantial. What I’ve noticed is that some geographical areas were hit harder than others and this can only be attributed to the extreme shallows of Charlotte Harbor. After the cold snap I went on a exploratory mission and counted approximately 1,200 dead snook over 40-inches. Recently, we’ve been catching a lot of 7 and 8-pounders with even smaller fish mixed in. This is a great sign and I have a lot of hope that the snook population will bounce back. They’ve done it before and they’ll do it again. Snook are resilient fighters and that’s why they’re so cherished.”

Everglades
Captain Rich Smith • www.captainrichsmith.com
After the freeze, pictures of Flamingo’s launch ramp resembled a watery graveyard. “We didn’t know if we would ever catch snook again. Right after the freeze I talked to commercial guys catching snook off Key West while mutton snapper fishing. It’s apparent that a lot of the fish migrated south and offshore to deeper water. All of the fish that rode out the winter in the middle of Florida Bay died. The fish I’ve seen return from the deep water are mainly 18+ inches, although when scouting the deep backcountry creeks in late March, I saw some very small fish under 6-inches. There seemed to be a healthy concentration, but I don’t know how they survived as fingerlings during the freeze. I’ve always been a proponent of catch and release and I’ve never killed a snook or redfish within park boundaries. Seeing how quickly it can be taken away from us, everyone’s realizing the need to protect our most important resources.”

St. Augustine
Captain Chris Herrera • www.palmcoastfishing.com
While the Palm Coast lies well beyond the stomping grounds of jumbo snook, anglers do connect every once and a while. “As far north as St Augustine it’s impossible to target snook on a daily basis, but a bit south towards Flagler Beach, Timoka, and Ormond Beach they have a greater presence. Unfortunately, the winter kill was brutally harsh on what large breeder fish we did have. Last year’s snook fishing was good for our standards, but I think it’s going to take a long time for them to rebound to what we experienced leading up to this previous winter. The few fish I’ve seen near the Timoka Basin and Ormond Beach have been juvenile fish under 7-pounds.”

East Central
Captain Richard Bradley • www.lagooner.com
Fortunately, there wasn’t a historic snook kill at Port Canaveral. “Now don’t get me wrong. I definitely saw a bunch of dead snook, both juvenile and mature, but the amount of floaters I saw was insignificant to the overall population. I’ve been going on recon missions and we’ve been catching snook every week on live bait without putting too much effort into it. Port Canaveral’s snook population seems to be doing very well, but one county south in Indian River there were dead snook everywhere. With the amount of snook that were reported dead in the IRL, I thought we were going to be done with snook but that definitely isn’t the case. There have been quality reports of both juvenile and mature fish caught along the entire stretch of the river.”

Palm Beach
Captain Danny Barrow • www.gosnookfishing.com
While no region was spared, anglers along the Atlantic Coast of South Florida seemed to have faired the best. “For the most part inshore shallows and backcountry venues were hit much harder than areas in the vicinity of inlets that flush warm ocean water. Our snook population is absolutely thriving with the whole spectrum of fish from 1-pounders up to 20-pounders. I don’t inlet fish because I don’t enjoy beating up on weakened post-spawn females, but because of the proximity of our inlets and the nearby Gulf Stream our snook population is as robust as ever.”

Do Your Part

The Snook Foundation’s Angler Action Program asks volunteers to record catch data from snook fishing trips around the state. It consists of a simple online form that asks for volunteers to record the number of anglers on the trip, how long they fished and the number of snook caught above, in, and below the slot. Anglers can also record specific lengths of fish as well and latitude/longitude coordinates. The application also has optional queries about the costs of snook fishing trips, data that may provide additional insight into the economic impact of fisheries in Florida. Making it easy to contribute usable information about directed fishing trips, this program will allow more inshore anglers the opportunity to play a part in conserving our valuable fisheries and habitat. It also ensures that the data utilized to evaluate stocks of fish includes direct angler input. Visit www.snookfoundation.org/data for information on how to participate.

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